January 12, 2009

CU: Josh Comen

VFX Magic On An Indie Budget

By Mel Cowan

Josh Comen, head of Comen VFX.
Is the economic downturn getting in the way of nailing that perfect traveling matte shot in the film that’s going to catapult you to fame, fortune and a three-picture deal? Meet your new best friend: Josh Comen, B.A. Communications ’95, is a veteran visual effects producer with nearly 60 feature film and television credits, along with many commercials and music videos, who, through his work on indie sensations like Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine and Saw has perfected the art of delivering top-flight VFX on a tight budget.

Comen’s company, the aptly named Comen VFX, created visual effects for two of the record 36 films by USC students or alumni screening at the Sundance Film Festival this year: the psychological thriller The Killing Room, starring Chloe Sevigny and Timothy Hutton, and the Native-American drama Barking Water, starring Richard Ray Whitman and Casey Camp-Horinek. Comen took time from a busy schedule to chat via email about his approach to delivering recession-proof visual effects.

You've focused on providing VFX for indie features. What are the challenges of providing affordable FX?
Providing visual effects and post services for independent features is about building relationships. There will almost always be budget challenges when working on an independent film, but that can also be where the fun starts. I enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out ways to put more on the screen for less money. You simply cannot work on an indie with the attitude of, 'We can't do that.' You have to have the mindset of, 'Let’s find a way to make that work!'

Comen, left, with VFX supervisor Tim Carras, prior to boarding a plane to survey the Hawaiian coast for an FX shot in the Milla Jovovich film A Perfect Getaway.
Why is it so important to you to work with USC alumni? My relationships with fellow alumni have been integral to my endeavors in the film industry. In fact, Trojan alumni currently fill many of the managerial positions at Comen VFX and Picture Lock Post, a new post-production company that I’m involved with. Holly Rayman, B.S. ’91, the CFO of both companies, is vital to not only the organization’s daily functions, but is also at the forefront of our expansion into other states, the most recent of which is New Mexico. Tim Carras, B.A. Production ’03, is our visual effects supervisor and is in charge of all creative decisions at the company, and also plays a key role in our operations at Picture Lock Post. As producer, I’m happy to work closely with Tim on every project. Jason Cochard, B.A. Critical Studies ’04, is both the lead colorist for Picture Lock Post and the VFX cinematographer for Comen VFX. Jason’s done incredible work on everything from The Sopranos to David and Fatima, and he’s currently working on completing the color timing for Barking Water.

Talk about the films you worked on that are in competition at Sundance this year. Was there anything specific that was exciting to work on in those films?
We completed visual effects for both The Killing Room and Barking Water, and in Barking Water, we also completed the main title sequence.
Barking Water, pictured on screen inside the color suite of Picture Lock Post as the digital intermediate process completed for its world premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

Picture Lock Post is the post facility for Barking Water and at the time of this article, we’re 16 hours deep into the color grading process. What excites me the most is the satisfaction of knowing that we are accomplishing the wants and needs of both the director, Sterlin Harjo, and the DP, Frederick Schroeder, in the color grading process. It’s a delight to see their happiness with our work and collaboration.

How did USC prepare you for the specific challenges of your job? I think the biggest strength of USC’s curriculum is its emphasis on forming relationships. I’ve always been someone who lives by the notion that with the right relationships and the right team, anything can be done. Moreover, working with others is not about micro-managing but rather putting the right people in the right positions and creating an environment from which they can succeed.

Why did you get into VFX in the first place? I was inspired to get into visual effects because of the 'team sport' nature of it; it’s a competition in and out of itself. If you put together the right team, strategize, and plan ahead for how to react to the different scenarios that come up, you’ll come out ahead.

What was it like to form your own company in a very competitive field? I guess I just did it. It was and still is scary, but for me, fear is not an option, nor is 'no' in the realm of possibilities. I wanted to create a company with an organizational culture of commitment to good work, no matter what it takes. I have no regrets. I love my job.